Not enough hours in the day but can’t afford to take on staff? Looking to focus on your passion as opposed to spending hours on time-consuming admin? Wish you could hire specific staff as and when you need them? Well, taking on a virtual assistant (VA) could be the answer.
A VA is a highly skilled professional who can provide a diverse range of administrative, technical and creative business support services to businesses operating in a broad range of sectors. Rather than hiring full-time employees to fulfil numerous job roles, businesses use VAs to provide a wide range of skills.
The VA industry is rapidly growing, as businesses wake up to the associated benefits. However, with varying hourly rates and so many to choose from, how do you know which VA is right for your business and what should you consider before taking one on?
Managers: Many VA companies operate a pool of assistants to complete work. Look out for companies that assign one account manager to complete the majority of tasks. It really helps to have a single point of contact.
Sole traders: Most VAs (72%) are sole traders who work with various clients, so make sure you are clear about specific deadlines so your VA can juggle workload appropriately.
Contract: Although there is no minimum commitment in terms of hours and VAs only invoice for work completed, protect yourself with a contract that includes clauses about confidentiality and data protection.
Fees: Although there are no recruitment agency fees or HR-associated benefits to provide, it is important to double-check what the hourly charge includes. For example, this rate usually covers all normal office supplies but excludes postage or anything bought in specifically for a job.
Workload: Weekly work for a VA ranges from general admin to bookkeeping, marketing to events; there is no all-encompassing job description. VAs are also starting to take on more social media responsibilities so make sure you are maximising a broad range of services.
Networking. Some people do with such ease and confidence, elegantly working a room. How we envy them. Because for some of us the very notion of networking with strangers fills us with dread. But making the most of social small talk is a valuable skill that we can teach ourselves, because you never know what doors a new contact can open in those few minutes. So, what’s the key to effective networking?
It’s just another part of your marketing tool kit, which can be refined and improved. And like all tools – knowing when and how to use it, will serve you well. Prepare by writing down two or three short sentences about yourself and your business or idea and learn these in advance. Make it current, factual and positive. This doesn’t need to be a sales pitch; it’s a conversation-starter; an opportunity to introduce yourself and your business to new people or tell people you already know something new so that they can leave with a refreshed version of your ‘asset value’.
It’s a conversation between people, not you trying to sell your latest product or service, but a taster, an appetiser. Give a glimpse of what you do using positive, confident language (which you’ve already prepared). And it’s two-way thing – show an interest in what others have to offer, so all parties can see if there’s something of mutual interest to follow-up.
Be conversational in your approach with a few casual questions, such as: “How have you found the event so far?”, “What’s your business about?” or “Who’s been your favourite speaker so far?” Top tip for the tongue-tied: worry less about what you have to sell, focus on being interested in the other person person. Top sales people are often great listeners.
If you are at an event where badges are given out and networking is part of the agenda, you’re expected to mingle rather than stick with one person for ages. It’s perfectly polite to spend a few moments with someone, make introductions, have a conversation and then say: “Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. I’ll leave you to meet other people…” or “I must take the opportunity to meet so and so…”
It’s OK to ask if the person can think of another person at the event who might be interested in your service or products. It’s also great when you can recommend someone whose products or interests are similar and agree to connect them via email or social media.
When you get home or have a few moments to spare, make a list of those you’ve spoken to (or scan their business cards or staple them into a notebook) and make a note of interesting things that will help you to remember them another time. And, of course, follow-up with any promised information. You should follow-up within a few days to make sure trust is maintained.
Blog supplied by Lisa Gagliani, CEO of Bright Ideas Trust, a charity that helps young people in London who aren’t in employment, education or training or who haven’t had the same chances as the rest of society to start their own businesses.
I have a Room 101 nomination. It’s media headlines and political comment telling us that 'businesses are unable to access funding from banks, we have to get the banks lending again, we need to make alternative funding available'.
This has been so noisy since the 2008 sub-prime bubble burst that I’m convinced it’s merely a default utterance when political parties sense that 'business' hasn't been in the headlines of late. The tone sounds so desperate at times as to imply an imminent hiatus if this matter isn't addressed. I’m not convinced that the need for bank funding is as important as we’re led to believe.
We accept as fact that since 2008 the banks have reined in their lending, as a response to previous over-lending. A good entrepreneur will secure investment from other sources, because they will perceive the banks’ reluctance to lend merely as a challenge to overcome. Other sources of funding may even be more appropriate, because some can bring additional commitment and proven commercial expertise.
Interestingly, among my local business community there is no issue around borrowing from banks, it's a message that you mainly hear in the media and from politicians – but why?
Historically we’ve been programmed to approach banks for finance. 2008 caused a paradigm shift and while those of us running our own businesses on the frontline are comfortable with this, the banks and politicians haven't caught up yet. There are two reasons – ego and economics. The banks and the City have always been thought of as the 'big boys' to whom us small firms should turn for support. They’re used to being in control – to dominating us.
However, 2008 showed that they aren't that great at managing their own businesses. Their validity to dominate has been undermined, but their ego has not been humbled yet. I’m not an economics expert, but I’d guess that the banks and the State are used to profiting from failing SMEs. Finding money from elsewhere takes away income from the 'big boys'. These are the real reasons for SMEs needing financing from the 'big boys' being in the headlines, it is their income streams that are being affected.
Our UK DNA as a nation of shopkeepers has prevailed and revealed its talent for resourcefulness and diversification. We don't need the 'big boys'. Question is – how long will it take them to adjust to their new relationship with us? Maybe we'll start asking for their investment once more when they’ve grown up and proved that they can run their businesses as well as they have expected us to run ours in the past.
There's no doubt that as a start-up you live on the entrepreneur diet of hard work and dedication. However, over the years I've also identified five other essentials that have been vital to our success…
My role is to direct the strategic growth of the company and leave the day-to-day management to senior staff. However, from day one I've maintained a keen eye on the 'front line'. Each morning I spend 25-30 minutes reviewing our customer service enquiries to understand what the complaints are, what's being returned, etc. I even listen into recorded conversations for greater detail.
Spending time at the customer-facing side of the business allows me to spot trends I might miss if I were to be removed from the heart of the business. Often trends are only understandable if you have insight into what customers want here and now.
This ethos has been essential to driving our growth. Now, all the decisions we make are based on cold, hard facts rather than instinct. As a result, we take an obsessive approach to data. We trial and test everything to finality, exploring each and every variable to develop the best possible system for all our services.
This means we evaluate all that we do, from comparing our competitor's prices to analysing our customer's feedback to one product over another. Furthermore, we define short-, medium- and long-term goals. With goals in place it's easy to work backwards to identify the stepping-stones needed to reach that success - and therefore all the elements we need to trial and test to get there.
All our analysis is done in-house, we never outsource. The ability to harness data is something all business owners should learn. If you can interpret figures, you can determine your business's strategy. And you don't want to put that power in the hands of someone else.
You can feel compelled to manage everything in-house to try to save money. In our experience, though, it can be a false economy. In your quest to cut overheads, you spend time you don't have striving to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, often leaving yourself vulnerable to mistakes. Outsourcing has been one of the best things we've ever done. It allows us to employ agencies, such as recruitment and PR, to deliver on our goals, achieving what we want, but don't have the time or experience to afford.
Recruiting the very best is great, but ensuring you can offer an ongoing, rewarding experience is crucial. We reward staff in a way that motivates. We have found that if you pay your employees market or above-market rate and offer them praise them when deserved, your staff will meet their targets. People are driven to do well and if you make sure you pay them enough so money is not a distraction, their focus will be that purpose.
It can be very instinctive to run from one great idea to the next. A short attention span seems to be the DNA of an entrepreneur. We soon learned, though, that it's best to focus on one business to the nth degree. We initially set up a number of sister companies alongside Cartridge Save. All were online retailers, built upon a similar model, so in theory, should run like one another. The reality was they were all equally demanding and we spread ourselves too thinly. So, we decided to focus on the cartridge ink business and operate in a market in which we knew we could really make difference.
Blog supplied by Sean Blanks, managing director of express online printer cartridge supplier Cartridge Save.
I co-founded the cleaner-booking platform Mopp in April 2013. For us, hiring interns (ie a student or trainee who works in order to gain experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification) has been a great way to help grow the business while staying lean. But how do you find great candidates and motivate them to really contribute to your business?
Blog written by Pete Dowds, co-founder of cleaner-booking platform Mopp.
The recent publication of Just the job – or a working compromise? The changing nature of self-employment in the UK by the Resolution Foundation (RF) offered a revealing glimpse into the world of self-employment in post-recession Britain.
RF is an independent think-tank that seeks to “improve living standards for the 15m people in Britain on low and middle incomes”. The findings of its report will prove less than inspiring for those considering self-employment, with the startling revelation that self-employed workers, on average, earn a measly 60p for every pound earned by employed people (in other words, 40% less).
Despite ever-increasing living costs, average self-employed earnings have fallen by a punitive 20% since 2007, compared to 6% for other employees. And, of course, many self-employed people don’t get sick pay, nor paid holidays or days off, despite taking responsibility for generating their own incomes.
So, why have self-employed incomes fallen so dramatically? Well, because of uncertainty and austerity since 2007/08, many self-employed people have probably thought it unwise to increase their prices, despite their own rising costs. Another reason is a reduction in work hours, a consequence of reduced demand and greater competition (ie more self-employed people).
Perhaps interestingly, it seems that many more ‘sisters’ and now choosing to ‘do it for themselves’. There has been a marked increase in the number of self-employed women in the UK, having risen from 27% (or 970,000) in 2005 to 30% (or 1.29m) in 2013.
Office for National Statistics figures show that between Q1 2013 and Q1 2014, the UK’s self-employed army increased by 375,000 to reach 4.55m (15% of the total workforce). But according to RF, self-employment has been growing steadily since the early 2000s, it’s not simply a consequence of recession and redundancy, but a matter of choice for many.
A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the RF report suggests that 73% of those who’ve become self-employed in the past five years have done so mainly or partly out of personal preference.
More people are now choosing self-employment, with fewer people heading in the opposite direction (including many more older people who can’t afford to retire completely). One-third of the part-time self-employed are aged 60-plus.
Interestingly, RF’s research suggests that the self-employed are now much better educated as a group, with many operating in service sectors, rather than manual trades, as previously.
RF chief executive Gavin Kelly, says: “Self-employment is often a highly precarious existence, which isn’t that well supported by public policy. High levels of self-employment seem likely to be here to stay and policy-makers have some catching up to do.”
Only 30% of self-employed people contribute to a pension, compared to 51% of employees. And, according to RF, a minority of self-employed people are “experiencing difficulties getting mortgages, tenancies and accessing personal credit and loans, due to being self-employed”.
According to RF: “For too many self-employed people, [housing and credit] are difficult to access, with many poorly positioned to cope with unexpected financial demands and retirement. Reform of the mortgage market, the pensions system and the introduction of Universal Credit should take into account the needs of this ever-growing group.”
Blog written by Start Up Donut editor Mark Williams.